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Singer Says Time On His Side

John on December 5, 2005 at 11:31 am

Peter Singer, who holds a bioethics chair at Princeton, published a brief letter in Foreign Policy magazine. The site requires registration, but it’s free if you want to have a look at the original. He begins his letter with this prediction:

By 2040, it may be that only a rump of hard-core, know-nothing religious fundamentalists will defend the view that every human life, from conception to death, is sacrosanct.

2040 seems to be lining up as a big year among dreamy materialists, a sort of millenium madness for unbelivers. Singer goes on to lay out his case:

South Korean researchers showed that human stem cells can be cloned by replacing the nucleus of an unfertilized human egg with the nucleus of an ordinary cell…The possibility of cloning from the nucleus of an ordinary cell undermines the idea that embryos are precious because they have the potential to become human beings. Once it becomes clear that every human cell contains the genetic information to create a new human being, the old arguments for preserving “unique” human embryos fade away.

First of all, I think we’ve known for some time that every cell in the human body (except gametes) contain genetic information to create the complete human. This is biology 101 since at least the 1960s. What’s new is the technological ability to make this happen. But the theory behind it is not a revelation. It’s old news.

Second, the “uniqueness” of the embryo was never based upon the inability of scientists to create clones of mature adults. Taking the nucleus of a skin cell and cloning a baby creates, essentially, a twin. While this person may grow into a unique individual, as an embryo he or she would not be genetically unique. However, a real embryo produced through the normal sexual process has a unique genetic sequence. Destruction of the embryo will in fact remove this unique sequence from the biosphere forever. So the “old arguments” for preserving human embryos do not fade away in the least.

Technology will drive this debate. As the sophistication of techniques for producing images of soft tissue increases, we will be able to determine with a high degree of certainty that some living, breathing human beings have suffered such severe brain damage that they will never regain consciousness.

Technology is a double edges sword. While it may do what Singer says with regard to the end of life, it may do the opposite for the beginning. 4D ultrasounds, which are only now becoming more common in doctor’s offices, demolish in an instant 30 years of pro-choice propaganda about “blobs of cells.”

Singer concludes by saying that in the future…

We will understand that even if the life of a human organism begins at conception, the life of a person—that is, at a minimum, a being with some level of self-awareness—does not begin so early. And we will respect the right of autonomous, competent people to choose when to live and when to die.

Ah, we’re back to the old personhood argument. Singer proposes we decide this based on “some level of self-awareness.” Let’s start from the ground and work up. What is the minimum standard of early personhood. I propose a scientific and less pliable standard as a foundation. Let’s agree that when it comes to end of life, brain death is the determining factor. This can be quantified as a flat EEG, i.e. no brain waves. I agree with Singer that technology’s ability to keep a body alive apart from a living brain should not “count” as life.

Now let’s apply the same quantifiable logic to the beginning of life as we do the end. Let’s use fetal brain waves as the dividing line between life and death. This means “personhood” begins at approximately 20 weeks and certainly by 24 weeks. Now let’s put some of our own brain waves to work and build upon this minimal standard a bit. Singer is using sleight of hand. He compares beginning of life issues to end of life issues as if they were the same thing. But they clearly are not. The arrow of time is significantly different in the two cases.

Take Terri Schiavo as an example of an end of life issue. Schiavo’s autopsy determined that her brain was essentially gone and that there was no hope of its returning under any conceivalbe scenario. Very well. I would argue that this was not clear until the autopsy, but assuming some new technology becomes available which allows us to make such determinations with certainty prior to “turning off the machines” I’ll accept it. However, the question in this case is clearly one of “recovery.” Terri Schiavo was not going to get better. She has no reasonable hope of future improvement.

Now consider a 5 week old fetus. The heart has just started to beat, but no brain function is yet present. What are the fetus’ reasonable prospects of future improvement. Well, barring spontaneous miscarriage, they’re pretty good. Put another way, will the baby “recover” from it’s lack of personhood? Absolutely. Give it 15 weeks it’ll begin to measure up on an EEG.

Just to pin this down, let’s do a little thought experiment. Let’s say that in the middle of the Terri Schiavo media storm, 100 of the most reputable doctors in the land are asked whether Terri would recover brain function and 99 of them say that she will absolutely begin to recover in 15 weeks and in six months she’ll be back to normal function. Given this diagnosis, how many people are going to be clamoring to pull the plug on Terri because “right now” she’s not a person. How many people would demand we allow her husband to cut short her likely recovery?

How many? Just one nutcase doctor, just Peter Singer.

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